I write as both father and son of Essex girls. Neither of them conforms to the popular stereotype. Neither has hair extensions, neither is superficial, vain, or promiscuous. Neither works in a nail salon. They are Essex girls only in the sense that they spent a large part of their upbringing in that famous home county. I think the likelihood that anyone would call them, or refer to them as ‘Essex girls’, in the popular sense of that term, under any circumstances is vanishingly small. I have also had the pleasure of teaching a large number of Essex girls. Some of them conformed to the stereotype in various ways whilst wildly confounding it in many others – hair-twirling blondes who won scholarships to Cambridge, for example. This is what we would expect. This is the problem with stereotypes and why they are not, in general, taken seriously.
Why do I bang on so? Well, in the quieter parts of the papers and the social media there have recently been valuable column inches/timeline space/tweet miles given over to the campaign to have the phrase ‘Essex Girl’ ‘removed from the Oxford English Dictionary’. Started by Natasha and Juliet, the founders of website ‘the Mother Hub’, it led to the hashtag #IAmAnEssexGirl, and once something’s got a hashtag, there will be no stopping it. Just look at what #Jesuischarlie did for free speech in Europe. Look what #BringBackOurGirls did for those 200 missing schoolgirls.
Actually, the campaign seems to have shifted since the OED responded that it never removes words from the dictionary. Now it wishes to have it redefined instead. Here’s the current definition, quoted by Mother Hub:
A contemptuous term applied (usu. joc.) to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterized as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.
I am not clear whether the campaigners have a substitute definition in mind. I would guess it might go something like this:
Brit. Not at all derogatory.
A phrase referring to young women who live in the county of Essex. Women from Essex are no better or worse in any sense than women for anywhere else, and include Nobel prize winners[i], selfless paramedics, hard-working schoolgirls and world-beating entrepreneurs. And Boadicea.
On their page, the founders of the campaign explain:
For us, the saddest part about the existence of these definitions is not the fact that a whole county of women are pigeon-holed into such an appalling stereotype …the worst thing is that in order for a phrase to get into the dictionary, there have to be a sufficient number of citations which indicate continuous wide-spread usage. The danger of people seeing it there in print, validated by an official and trusted institution, is that it almost justifies its usage in both everyday conversation and the media. In fact it almost justifies the belief that every woman from Essex fits this definition. [My italics]
So are we to believe that the Mother Hub founders are surprised that the phrase ‘Essex Girl’, with its derogatory meaning, has sufficient currency to warrant a dictionary entry? Where have they been living for the past two decades? More worrying is the idea that a dictionary definition ‘almost justifies… usage’. Does that work for other derogatory terms? Should no derogatory terms be included in the dictionary, lest it encourage people to use them? What about ‘pikey’, ‘Yid’ and ‘wanker’? What about the word that dare not speak its name, but begins with an n? Do racists use its presence in the OED as a defence?
Okay, let’s go with that. Suppose one of these women is harangued in the street. ‘Hah. You’re just an Essex girl!’ shouts our imaginary haranguer. She is justifiably upset, especially as this is, apparently, one of her sorest points. She takes legal advice. She asks the Police if this is hate speech. She asks a lawyer if she can sue for defamation. Both people take the newly-printed acquiescent OED from their long shelves, and turn to the preferred definition I suggested above.
‘Hmmmm, it seems that there’s nothing derogatory about the phrase at all, madam,’ they say. ‘It just describes women from Essex, and you are undoubtedly’ (the policeman would probably say ‘undoubtably’) ‘just such a woman. It cannot found an action for hate speech under the Public Order Act 1986, and neither is it defamatory in that it does not lower you in the opinion of right thinking people’
The point is that a dictionary is not an instruction book on appropriate terms to use to describe people, nor does it justify or authorise use. Even if it were, do we really think that knuckle-dragging unthinking users of the phrase who believe that ‘every woman from Essex fits the definition’ are likely to be pointing to the Oxford English Dictionary as their authority?
A dictionary is a record of how phrases and words have been used historically. Lots of history is extremely unpleasant, but refusing to record or acknowledge those unpleasant interludes can get you into a lot of trouble, like here and here. Does the recording of atrocities mean that they are somehow authorised or encouraged by those recording them? Does the presence in the dictionary of the ‘n word’ mean it’s fine to use it?
I do understand the need to reinforce positive stereotypes and to render negative ones outmoded, and if I were starting a web-site specifically about the wonderful women of Essex (‘For insta buddies to meet over a coffee, have a giggle and start exciting conversations’), I would feel justified in beginning some kind of campaign to draw attention to it, but the place to start is not with the dictionary. This is shoot-the-messenger stuff. Anyone who described those estimable women I mentioned in the first paragraph as ‘Essex girls’ would only make themselves look foolish.
A stereotype dies when people lose interest in it. Anyone who lives in certain parts of Essex knows that there are some women who tick almost every one of the defining characteristics, and that the combination of these represent a phenomenon distinctly Essex, but whose values and pursuits seem to be gaining currency in the wider world – the success of Miss Kardashian being perhaps another measure of the same tendency.
My fear is not that girls from Essex will feel defined by the phrase, but that it will fall out of use when the rest of the world has followed suit and become so unintelligent, promiscuous and materialistic that we won’t be able to tell the difference.